What is it about college that makes people drink more?

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Dinkytown bar
The Library is one of a number of bars in Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

Tuesday night is beer pong tournament night at Blarney Pub and Grill in Minneapolis' Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota.

It's 11 o'clock and Casey and Meagan, two young beer pong regulars, make up the team known as Drunk and Dirty. Casey is 27 years old. Meagan is a pre-med senior at the U.

Casey pours beer into a group of plastic cups.

"You try not to put too much in, because with all these people here you could end up playing 25 games, and you don't want to be too drunk you can't play," says Casey.

After this story was published Blarney owner Mike Mulrooney told MPR news, 12 games is the maximum for a player in a 64-game tournament.

Some would think would think the point of the game is to get drunk. When Casey and Meagan are asked whether they're here to drink or to win, here's what they say.

"We're here to win, to tell you the truth," says Casey. "And drink," Meagan adds.

"And drink, of course," Casey responds. "But mainly we like to win and have a good time doing it, you know."

When one team throws a ping pong ball into one of the cups, someone from the opposing team has to drink the contents. The first team to run out of cups loses.

On a winning night, Casey says, a team of two can go through six or seven pitchers of beer. The bar has a sponsorship agreement with a beer seller, so patrons move from table to table carrying $7 pitchers of Miller Lite.

But college students don't exactly need another vehicle for drinking. A University of Minnesota survey finds more than 37 percent of students engage in high-risk drinking. Games and easy access to cheap alcohol are the bane of campus health officials like Toben Nelson.

"Heavy drinkers play drinking games, and drinking games result in a lot of heavy drinking," says Nelson. "In fact, the purpose of drinking games is to get drunk."

To Nelson, an assistant professor with the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, college students are a vulnerable and captive population, easily picked off by booze merchants.

"Heavy drinkers play drinking games, and drinking games result in a lot of heavy drinking."

"They're away from their family, they're away from their traditional long-standing social ties, they're away from institutions like their church, like athletic involvement," Nelson points out.

Colleges typically respond, Nelson says, by doing what they do best -- educating students about the dangers of alcohol, researching the issue, and encouraging more acceptable alternatives.

The trouble is, that doesn't work.

"Those kinds of things, by themselves, are unlikely to be effective," Nelson says. "They've been implemented for at least 10 years and we've, frankly, seen no change."

If there were an easy fix, Nelson says, people would be doing that.

"What we need to do is implement a wide range of interventions that help dampen, reduce, minimize the heavy consumption that's going on," Nelson says.

Those solutions mostly revolve around limiting easy access to alcohol by restricting the number of liquor establishments around campuses, eliminating cheap drink specials at bars, and hiking alcohol taxes to make heavy drinking less economical.

It also means tighter enforcement on campuses of drinking age laws. Such actions require a strong alliance among colleges, local government and state officials -- and even parents and alumni -- that is difficult to forge, much less sustain.

Drinking is cheaper than a movie
Toben Nelson is assistant professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the U of M. Because of quarter shots, dollar well drinks, bottomless beer cups and other drink specials, he says "it's cheaper to binge drink than it is to go to a first-run movie."
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Minnesota State University Mankato began chipping away at the binge drinking problem at least two years ago with another approach. They're getting the word out that not all students are heavy drinkers.

"About one out of four students don't drink at all," says Wendy Schuh, Mankato State's alcohol and drug educator.

Schuh says the school is turning around the misperception on campus that most college students are big drinkers.

Schuh and other university officials believe changing the perception that heavy drinking is common will change the students' belief that they need to drink in order to fit in on campus.

"About 10 percent would be considered high risk, or would be to use the term excessive drinking or binge drinking," says Schuh. "That leaves, you know, 70 percent of our students that maybe drink occasionally or use safe drinking behaviors."

Schuh says it's this large segment of students colleges are struggling to reach before they become excessive drinkers.

In spite of the effort, two students connected with the college have died alcohol-related deaths since the start of the school year.

Back at Blarney in Dinkytown, it's 1:30 in the morning and bar patrons slur their words and visibly weave as they walk to the bathroom.

Casey and Meagan have enjoyed a winning streak. Each has downed a bubbly drink called a strawberry Shasta -- a concoction of vodka, peach schnaaps and Red Bull energy drink -- in addition to their beer pong cups.

They decide Casey will try to remain relatively sober so he can play the game and try to keep their winning streak alive -- and also drive home. It's a strategy that pays off for awhile, until Meagan is forced to pour cup after cup of beer into her 110-pound body.

"I know the more I drink, the better I do," says Meagan, "until I get to a point where I'm done, and then I can't hit sh*t."

Casey and Meagan eventually lose and head home.

Research shows binge drinking on campuses doesn't happen in a vacuum. Colleges with drinking problems are typically located in states where many others drink a lot as well.

And in states with large rural populations, Minnesota included, there are even more heavy drinkers.